The second CBC that I helped on this winter was the Forest Glen Preserve Christmas Bird Count. I covered the Langley Bottoms area along the eastern edge of Vermilion County, just outside of Danville, Illinois to the southeast, near the Indiana border. It was fortuitous that my coverage area is inside the Forest Glen CBC circle as the area had been an area I had been exploring for several years as a teenager before I ever helped on a Christmas Bird Count. I could walk to my CBC coverage area from my Grandma’s & first cousin Jim’s homes nearby. Other than the several county and state parks in Vermilion County, this was and still is one of the wilder tracts of habitat left in the county. Gus Carlson owned a large chunk of it including a wonderful 15 acre oxbow pond and slough known as Langley or “Carlson’s” Pond and he was always great about letting me walk around the entire property (100+ acres), including the wetlands that come in about a mile from the Big Vermilion River (a major tributary of the Wabash River). The other major land owner in my CBC coverage area was/still is the University of Illinois. Information on this 477 acre U of I VRO (Vermilion River Observatory) site that I cover on the Forest Glen CBC can be found here:
(http://research.illinois.edu/cna/areas.cfm (scroll down to the Vermilion River Observatory); and http://archives.library.illinois.edu/archon/?p=digitallibrary/getfile&id=3480
This amazing man-altered, forested, stream valley about the length of a football field would wind up being one of the country’s more amazing radio astronomy sites for twenty years, before newer technologies would make this site obsolete. What I thought was cool though was that this whole, huge structure had to be mostly made of wood, even the basketball-sized wooden bolts that held the thing together! And the ground altered, formerly forested hillsides were removed of their trees and the ground on the hillsides all around the VRO structure were covered with a black rubber, and then that was covered with a fine, wire mesh (hard to walk on in winter with the steep terrain and snow on the ground!). This area abuts Gus Carlson’s, Langley Pond area, and along with a few other property owners in the general Langley Bottoms area comprises close to a thousand acres of mature upland forest, shrublands, wetlands and scattered fields, pastureland & ag fields… and more depending on how far you want to wander.
Though this CBC annually gets the lowest species total of the three local CBCs (Forest Glen Preserve, Middle Fork River Valley and Champaign County) of my native homeland of East-Central Illinois, it is the one I probably enjoy the best, since nowadays I spend all day hiking some great habitat on this CBC, that for the most part hasn’t been developed or destroyed… plus it is the first Christmas Bird Count that I ever helped on. You still see/hear cool birds like Wild Turkeys, Barred Owls, Pileated (7 this year!) & Red-headed Woodpeckers and nowadays Bald Eagles are even regularly found. Plus, it is just great walking up and down steep, wooded ravines with lots of big oak and American beech trees, and walking alongside the Big Vermilion River, especially with a few inches of snow on the ground. The Beech tree reaches the western extent of its range in Illinois and the U.S. this far north in the state in this general area and is a common species in many forests in the eastern part of the county.
My best bird find ever on this CBC was just this winter! While standing at a place that I call the “Magic Bend” (in the Vermilion River) where I’ve had many hard-to-come-by birds on this CBC over the years (Bald Eagle, ducks, Killdeer, Belted Kingfisher, Winter Wren, Fox & Field Sparrows, etc.), I looked up to what I initially thought was just a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soaring over the wooded bluffs a couple hundred yards away, but heading my way. The first of the two birds that I got on with my bins was too big to be a hawk, and I quickly realized it was an eagle… but it had bold, roundish white panels in the wings and a white base to the tail… an immature GOLDEN EAGLE!!
Only my 2nd sighting of this species ever for Vermilion County, which I have been birding for 40+ years! The other bird with it I then realized was an equally large, immature Bald Eagle, which have become regular for the past five or more years for me in this area. Funny how nothing to give you size context can initially make you think that a bird is a much smaller (or larger) bird than what you are looking at… at least for me. Though they didn’t appear to be having a squabble, one of the birds did appear to be escorting the other out of their territory, though I can’t say who was escorting who. On the way out of the area this year, I noticed that a large beaver was really doing a job on the dense willow thicket beginning to cover part of the sandy dune and gravel-covered river-edge that is the “Magic Bend”.
I didn’t find any Saw-whet or Long-eared Owls in the two pine and red cedar groves where I have found them in past years on this CBC but I still looked, as each area is also usually good for other conifer-loving species like Red-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Fox Sparrows and Purple Finches. One of these is a long, narrow stand of planted white cedar and red and white pines at the entrance to the VRO site mentioned above. One year that I did find a Saw-whet Owl here, I didn’t want to take the time to retrieve my camera back at the car and make the long walk back, so I came out the next day to photograph the owl. Unfortunately, all I found when I got to the owl roost site was its feathers.
I had also flushed a Cooper’s Hawk from the same stand of pines. I wonder how many of these owls are eaten by accipiters every winter?
One non-bird related story happened many years ago when my cousin Jim and good friend Don Stine decided to accompany me on this CBC. We were hiking at the base of a tall, steeply forested hillside next to the Big Vermilion River (three smaller rivers, the Middle Fork, North Fork and Salt Fork come together near Danville to form the “Big” Vermilion), and were temporarily resting from this strenuous part of the hike near the base of the hill. All of a sudden, a man with a machete strapped to his belt came running down the steep hillside at us to find out what we were doing on his property (except for his “weekend” cabin, there are no houses out in this area near the U of I Vermilion River Observatory site, for miles). When he found out we were helping on a Christmas Bird Count, he welcomed us up to his wonderfully nice cabin made of sturdy, old, salvaged, barn timbers (and with a metal, spiral staircase up to the upstairs loft!), for some hot chocolate. Our initial impression of this person as a madman soon softened, and in later years this man would go on to be the mayor of Champaign! This teacher, turned mayor and Illinois historian would later go on to write a very interesting book on the natural & human history of the Big Vermilion River system with my birding pal Jim Smith called, “A Guide to the Big Vermilion River System”.
Another story was told to me of how he climbed to the top of an old, iron bridge that was scheduled to be torn down, and sawed off (with a hand, metal saw!!) the old year/date plate often affixed to old bridges, in the middle of the night! Hope he had earplugs!! Though this person thought of themselves as a conservationist (described themselves as such on the above book’s back cover), he later would clear-cut a large and beautiful old swath of second-growth oak-hickory-beech forest near the above cabin, something that the property manager for the U of I trying to buy the property will likely never forgive him for.
Purple Finches are also a regular feature for me on this CBC, and they once highly outnumbered House Finches on the Christmas Bird Counts I helped on. A couple years ago on this CBC, I followed a decent-sized flock of Purple Finches traveling from ash tree to ash tree, feeding on the seeds which hang on the trees long into/through the winter. Interestingly, all of the Purple Finches that I noticed this winter in various parts of Illinois were all feeding on Sycamore tree seed-balls. I didn’t think anything really ate these seed balls, but recently discovered that Sycamore seeds were also a common food of the extinct Carolina Parakeet. Other good birds that I have found on this CBC have included Trumpeter/Tundra Swans (also this winter… too high up to ID)!, Long-eared Owl, No. Saw-whet Owl, Northern Mockingbird (formerly regular) and Winter Wren (several times). I also had a Black-billed Magpie once in this area on a Spring Bird Count! Other good birds (for various reasons) that I had on this year’s Forest Glen CBC included a single Green-winged Teal (waterfowl are very scarce on this CBC with few bodies of water to attract them), 6,050 American Crows (part of the huge roosting group from Danville & one of my favorite bird species), 31 Carolina Chickadees (Vermilion Co. is on the “dividing line” between the two chickadee species), 10 Eastern Bluebirds and 3 Fox Sparrows. Carolina Wrens are also a common species on this CBC but though I heard a few, numbers appeared to be way down this winter on this and other Central Illinois CBCs.
Jim Smith and daughter-in-law Sue Smith along the Salt Fork River on the Forest Glen CBC.
Sue Smith looking into a coyote den along the roadside on the Forest Glen CBC.
Number of species I tallied for the day: 42
Total species for this CBC season: 62 (+ 1 Count Week Species)